To help get a handle on this danger, NASA coordinates the Near-Earth Object Program, which searches for and tracks asteroids and comets that could approach the earth. About 10,000 near-Earth objects have been discovered, including nearly 900 with a diameter of roughly a kilometer or larger. None is expected to hit Earth anytime soon, but many large objects are believed to remain undetected.
In 2005 Congress set a 15-year deadline for scientists to find 90 percent of the near-Earth objects greater than about 500 feet in diameter — those large enough to cause regional or global devastation. But the mandate has been chronically underfunded. The project would require several more dedicated telescopes. Last year the project received about $20 million, far less than the $50 million that the National Research Council estimated in 2010 was needed to reach the congressional goal by 2030, a decade late. Even when this goal is met, most small asteroids and comets — too small to cause global devastation but still large enough to cause damage far worse than just occurred in Russia — will remain undetected unless funding is significantly increased.
Another danger is that even if a meteor does not itself cause major damage, any resulting chaos or confusion could lead nations to overreact. In 2002, for example, a meteor exploded over the Mediterranean at a time when India and Pakistan were facing off over the disputed Kashmir region. The U.S. Space Command's deputy director for operations warned that the meteor might have been misidentified as a nuclear attack, had it come apart over South Asia.
Many countries lack the United States' sophisticated sensors that can help determine whether a large explosion is nuclear in nature. The damage that could occur if a nation were to misidentify a meteor explosion and launch a counterattack is chilling. Washington should do more to establish an international warning system that can provide credible, near-instant information to countries across the globe whenever a major explosion is detected.